A startled-looking, wide-eyed chick is seen tumbling from his breaking shell. Beneath him stands another quirky chick, wielding bacon on a fork twice her size, with a piece of shell covering her eyes. A pig barista is covered in tattoos; a blue bull sniffs beans; a delighted rooster inhales the steam from her coffee. Donuts seem to fall from the ceiling.
No, this isn’t my personal Adult Swim-fueled sleep paralysis; these images can be found painted on the walls of Rise + Grind, Durham’s newest breakfast joint owned by the town’s coveted Hop + Grind. All of the art comes courtesy German artist Falk Houben.
Houben has an affinity for off-kilter animals, something obvious to anyone who’s seen the Grind murals. “They’re kinda edgy, they’re kinda mean...but still not too mean,” he said with a small laugh. “I love to create animal characters, just because you can give them so many different traits and they can do whatever you want. An animal can get away with so much more stuff than if it were a human, you know what I mean?”
Photography by Jack Bouchard
Houben’s creations are tucked into every nook and cranny of the cafe; the hidden hallway outside the bathrooms was transposed into a brick alley, and a taco-loving paint-pig watches patrons as they wait to pee. With no help, Houben painted 150 square feet in an astonishing ten days. “But, you know, it’s like super long days; probably fourteen-hour days,” the artist added. “The thing is, you get in a flow when you have a big project like this.”
On the last day, Houben couldn't help himself. He went over to Hop + Grind and added more paint to the walls.
The folks at Rise + Grind know how to treat an artist, which may explain Houben’s hard-working attitude. The artist, who currently resides in Colorado with his wife, was flown out and put up in a hotel room to make the coffee shop’s mural happen. During Houben’s stay in Durham, he ate lunch and dinner at Hop + Grind everyday. “I ate myself through the entire menu,” he said with a laugh. His favorites? “The Hot Chick and Hog Marley.”
Initially, Houben connected with Hop + Grind’s owner and chef Bobby Marcotte in 2018 to create a personal tattoo design. Looking back, this was only a harbinger of things to come; just a few years later and Houben’s art has become a staple of both the Peabody and Durham Hop + Grind locations. And when the newfound, beloved Rise + Grind came to fruition, it was a no- brainer whose artwork would grace the walls.
Houben’s first mural for Marcotte found its home in Peabody. The original plan? One small mural. The outcome? Two large ones. “Me and Bobby were really getting along very well,” Houben explained. “From then on, we were like, ‘You know what, let’s do this thing together, the whole brand development.’” And that’s just what the pair’s doing now.
“It’s not just a boring brand logo,” said Houben. “They’re custom and unique and handmade—just like the food is.”
Houben enjoys putting messages into his artwork. In Rise + Grind, these include references to Chef Marcotte’s first-born daughter, Alanna, who passed away from cancer when she was thirteen. “Peace Love Alanna” has been painted in pink smoke on the air duct. Pigs are inked with “f#%k.cancer” tattoos and her birthday.
“But he really turned this disaster into a positive energy,” Houben explained. “He raises about $150,000 a year for St. Judes.” On St. Patrick’s day, the company hosted a charitable 5K road race. References to this charity work can also be found throughout the mural (best bet: check the pig tattoos). As for his personal favorite piece of the Rise + Grind art, Houben said it’s the three animals in the corner: the bull, the rooster, and the pig. “But there’s so many different ones,” he added. And he’s right; everytime I enter, I seem to find a new detail I hadn’t noticed before: “forkinoff” tatted on a pig’s ear, pink steam circling the restaurant, dripping donuts cascading down the wall.
However, my favorite piece of the mural has not changed: the aforementioned chicks. The same can be said for Dana DiCola, the general manager of all three Grind locations. Houben laughed upon hearing this. “You know, the chicks were super spontaneous,” he said. “The chicks, we didn’t even plan on. I just kinda freehanded that. But people really, really love the chicks. And that happens sometimes. You can plan as much as you want, then you have a funny idea and all of a sudden it becomes a favorite.”